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Smith College to play pioneering role in engineering; First women's institution to establish department


NORTHAMPTON, Mass. -- Hunched over their oscilloscopes and diode circuits on the third floor of McConnell Hall at Smith College on a wet, gray morning, all 12 students in Professor Nalini Easwar's electronics class say they hope to pursue careers in physics or engineering.

Nothing all that unusual there -- Smith, a women's college, has long had a contingent of hard-science majors. Moreover, many male-dominated professions have filled so rapidly with women over the past two decades that today nearly equal numbers of men and women are graduating from the nation's schools of law and medicine.

But engineering is different. Five out of six engineering students across the country are male, as are 96 percent of engineering faculty members.

In an effort to help alter the imbalance and to change its lingering white-glove image, Smith, one of the nation's premier private schools, is planning to become the first women's college with an engineering department. Its trustees are expected to approve the $12.5 million plan today, with the first course to be offered in the fall.

'This can't be serious'

"There will be people who will say, 'This can't be serious,' since it's for women," said Ruth J. Simmons, the president of Smith. "There needs to be a critical mass of women moving through engineering together so that guys don't ever again say, 'Dearie, let me show you how it's done.' "

Beyond an effort to bring more women into engineering, Smith's plans are part of an effort by a largely white, historically elite institution to attract more immigrants, foreigners and first-generation students -- the groups that are most drawn to engineering.

Bigger challenge

More broadly, it is a sign of how women's colleges are seeking ways to reinvent themselves. While all universities face difficult identity choices -- whether to emphasize training or learning, research or teaching -- women's colleges have a bigger challenge than most. Application rates, up in recent years, are much lower than at academically comparable coeducational institutions, and even many of the students here insist that they see no particular need to segregate themselves from men in college.

Simmons, an African-American Harvard graduate who is the 12th child of a Texas sharecropper, is keenly aware of the need for her college to reach out to a more diverse group of high school students, "the kind of students we don't get enough of," as she put it.

Reaching out to minorities

John M. Connolly, Smith's provost, noted in his proposal for the engineering department that in California last year, 70 percent of high school seniors who expressed an interest in engineering were members of minority groups. "We assume that this group currently ignores places like Smith, since we do not offer what they want to study," he added.

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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